Young Daniel Rooke wants a different kind of life from that envisioned for him by his father. A boy with a talent for mathematical calculus, a gift that marks him
as different from the others, Daniel is offered a bursary, a place at the Portsmouth Navel Academy, far from home in Church Street and the narrow streets where everyone knows him so well.
Daniel has a gift for astronomy, inspired by the logic of notation and the movements of the heavenly bodies. Full of dreams of leaving the place
- not just the Academy but Portsmouth - Daniel first battles the French in Chesapeake Harbor, then is given a place in a proposed expedition to New South Wales to observe the arrival of Halley’s comet and to explore this new great southern land.
Rooke and the other officers on board the HMS Sirius view New South Wales as “a smooth page waiting to be written on.” As the First Fleet skewers to port and lumbers up a smooth, unsullied Sydney Harbor in January of 1788, this ramshackle mix of soldiers and convicts are blindsided by their assumptions of this brave new world.
Choosing Sydney Cove and its “hard, empty light and breathless heat,” the new arrivals begin
building their settlement while the native Aboriginals watch from a distance, “as still as rocks” and often disinterested. Meanwhile, Daniel aches to be rid of the familiar trappings of British military life and his service to the Crown, all too aware of the horror of its assumed pleasantries within the rituals and uniforms of His Majesty’s service.
Given permission to construct a makeshift astronomical observatory on a promontory where it will be part of the settlement, Daniel sees the station as a convenient screen to evade the more unsavory duties of his profession. Spending his days and nights isolated in his hut, Daniel is free to look at the stars burning with foreign clarity and court the attention of the natives, particularly a young
Aboriginal girl called Tagaran who comes to him and begins teaching him her language.
Daniel’s notebook fills with her words, the Aboriginal vocabulary and grammatical forms. “Like the jaws of some indigenous machine” the lieutenant finally realizes that everything in his life had been leading here. Daniel sees it “as clearly as a map,” this sense of having been offered a gift, a boundary being crossed and erased “like ink in water, one language melting into another.”
In a story filled with beauty, detail, and a fair amount of tragedy, Grenville’s lieutenant struggles to reconcile his moral torments with his duty to the Crown and his increasing love for the Aboriginal people. But in Grenville’s world, paradise, like any other, is finite. Soon trouble is brewing in the form of skirmishes with natives. When the settlers are attacked by a frightened and distrustful people, events are set in motion that will eventually unleash the
nightmare of an assumed British superiority.
Evoking the stunning natural beauty of a pristine land, Grenville bases Rooke’s life on William Dawes (1762 – 1836), an officer of the Royal Marines who was an astronomer, engineer, and fervent abolitionist. Yet she doesn’t just transcribe history; she magically reinvents Dawes’ life, delicately infusing her narrative with Daniel’s spiritual and moral epiphanies, his bourgeoning his passions, and also his silent yearnings for understanding.